Crime and Punishment: Enslaved Women in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil

Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:50 AM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Ana Lucia Araujo, Howard University
This paper explores three cases of Brazilian-born enslaved and freed women who were convicted of murder or infanticide in the city of Porto Alegre (Rio Grande do Sul) in 1822. Convicted of serious crimes, Maria, Mônica, and Anna Maria Faustina were not sentenced to death, the typical fate of enslaved individuals who committed murder. Instead, they were publicly flogged then sent into degredo (penal exile) in Angola or Benguela, two Portuguese colonies in West Central Africa. Although these women were not engaged in activities of collective resistance, by leading rebellions or forming quilombos, criminal records indicate that over the next decades their actions were emulated by other enslaved women, by certainly contributing to disturb Rio Grande do Sul slave system. Also, even though the status of these three black women, and the crimes they perpetrated, differed in some ways, their sentences contain similar elements. Drawing on documents housed at the Arquivo Público do Estado do Rio Grande do Sul (APERS) in Porto Alegre, the paper examines the criminal proceedings against these black women. By discussing the general context and specific events that led them to commit crimes, I demonstrate how enslaved domestic servants, in both wealthy and poor households, were perpetual victims of physical punishment and sexual abuse. The public defenders in these cases condemned the abuses perpetrated against the enslaved population, which the judicial system apparently recognized as mitigating circumstances that spared these three women from the death penalty but condemned them to harsh physical punishments and penal exile. I argue that the sentences imposed on them were messages intended to deter other black women from committing acts of individual and collective resistance, as such acts perhaps offered the enslaved population alternatives to escape from slavery.